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This Firm Has Gender and Diversity Issues—But It Isn't Hiding Them

Vivia Chen

July 6, 2018

DfcJt8fWkAE0yhYUsually, firms chase me down to tell me the amazing progress they're making on the elevation of women or minorities to partnership. But if firms are lagging on those fronts, they'll avoid the whole topic.

Give credit to Dickinson Wright for baring it all—warts included. 

The Michigan-based firm sent me portions of a report by University of Michigan that showed exactly how far behind the firm is in those areas. (Michigan's's Ross School of Business conducted an exhaustive study on the firm's diversity and inclusion efforts. Faculty members and students analyzed the firm's internal data and interviewed more than 40 lawyers.) 

Indeed, DW 's record on women and minorities is stunningly mediocre:

- The firm lagged behind peer firms and the national legal industry in female lawyers and female partners. (The firm has 27 percent female lawyers, 22 percent female partners overall and 12 percent female equity partners.)

- The firm lagged behind peer firms and the national legal industry in minority lawyers. (The firm has 8 percent minority lawyers and only 5 percent minority partners.)

The report also throws light on other problems: While 41 percent of all attorneys were "worried that they lacked sufficient client engagement opportunities to advance their careers," women and attorneys of color felt that way even more keenly. Also, more than 50 percent of younger lawyers were concerned about inheriting books of business from older attorneys—and, again, "this concern was higher among women attorneys and attorneys of color than for white male attorneys."

What's more, some women and minorities "identified a lack of senior role models (or too few) as a problem for their visualizing a path to the next level in the firm." According to one female income partner in the report: "There are not many female equity partner role models. It makes you think that it is almost impossible to do if you want to have a family.” 

Not exactly an affirming picture. So why would Dickinson Wright want to talk about this report?

Partner Kathy Zelenock, chair of the firm's women's network, says the firm is determined to make progress: "We are working very hard on issues of inclusion," adding that the firm believes in being transparent, "even when we are not as successful as we would like to be."

Hope is running high that this report will make a difference. "What’s innovative is that we opened ourselves to introspection by inviting a third party to look into our data," says Zelenock, citing information like time records, partner compensation and the utilization rates of women and minorities by its top billing lawyers. 

What the University of Michigan report has produced is more data, which Zelenock says gave the firm a clearer roadmap about tackling its problems. "We didn't go into this thinking let's get more data, but data was a huge thing that came out,' says Zelenock. 

Data also came in handy in showing some partners why they need to change their ways. Though the report concludes that most top billing partners tapped women and minorities for their projects, "there were just a few who didn't," says Zelenock. "Some partners have reputations for not working with women, and with data, we can talk about it. It was not perceived as a moral judgement but a data-driven thing. We let them know what their statistics show, and we made them aware that we are now monitoring them."

Zelenock seems particularly encouraged that the firm gets good marks for culture. "About 91 percent of respondents said the best thing at Dickinson is our colleagues. So we have an 'A' for attitude, but a 'C' for performance in moving women and minorities to leadership." 

Another positive finding is that the data show that gender and race did not affect compensation. "Our compensation is race and gender blind, and not a lot of firms can say that," says Zelenock. But she adds, "A woman's $1.5 million is more hard-earned because she's still pitching to gray-haired white men." And she notes problems with how business is inherited: "We saw some situations where business was passed illogically to another white male."

Since the report came out about a year ago, the firm has made some changes. Among them, Zelenock cites review of the succession process, appointment of women and lawyers of color to leadership, more flexibility in parental leave policy and improved recruitment records. "What give me hope is that the associate and nonequity partner numbers for women, minorities and LGBTQ are improving. We've made a lot of efforts, though our equity partner rates for women and minorities still aren't great."

Yes, Dickinson Wright's numbers for women and minorities are still nothing to write home about.

That said, the firm deserves kudos for having the guts to talk openly about their challenges. That's a lot more than what most firms would do.

Email me: vchen@alm.com






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New le.adership at GM

I suspect most firms still have these issues but they are masked and undiscussed for the most part.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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